Right on the mammogram machine there are two packets of smelling salts* taped at eye level. "Do you need those very often?" I ask the technician.
"No, not often, but when I do, it's good to have them close." She reiterates that a mammogram isn't that painful but people sometimes get "worked up" and pass out. I'm glad I'm not "worked up." I'm standing there with a gown draped first over one shoulder, then the other, trying to seem nonchalant about having my breast maneuvered onto a tray and then flattened by what really resembles a refrigerator drawer. It does, I swear. I could remove it from the machine, take it home in my purse, and fill it with fresh vegetables before installing it in my Frigidaire.**
I find myself thinking about how this is what this woman does all day long. She dons her gloves, positions other people's breasts onto the tray, then stands behind a shield and pushes the button that takes the picture of the breast. Over and over and over again. And presumably, goes to lunch mid-day and is able to think about other things. I don't envy her job, I really don't. I don't want to have a job where I may or may not have to deal with people passing out. And... I'm losing sight of the bigger picture here - I also don't want to have my hands on other people's breasts all day. I hope she earns a good salary.
Days after the mammogram experience, women get their results. I've done this before, and thankfully, last time there wasn't anything abnormal. But my friend in California had her first mammogram within days of mine and her results were different. And then she started her cancer treatment. I'm happy to say she is here today, having survived the cancer. I sat with her after her first reconstructive surgery and thought back to when she got her results and I got mine and our paths diverged.
More recently, two more women I know got breast cancer diagnoses. So, today when I stood there trying to relax as the machine clamped down, I thought of them. Prayed for them. It hurt a little at one point and I remembered my friend's husband's description of the skin stretcher she was coping with at home as she recuperated from her mastectomy. I can handle a little pain. Especially compared to a skin stretcher. If it comes to it, I'll deal with the skin stretcher, too, if it means I get to live a little longer with my family.
Why am I talking about mammograms and breast cancer? I'm certainly not a good advocate for regular mammograms. Today's was my first in three years. I'll know the outcome in a few days. But the experience, whether it brings relief until the next one, or produces the news that changes your life, is something many of us women are going through or being encouraged to go through once a year, much like dentist appointments and pap smears. And I like to talk about things like that. Unpleasant but common experiences. Just to reiterate the "you're not alone" message that so often gets me through things like mammograms.
*ammonia inhalants, or ammonia carbonate if you want the fancier, more medically accurate term
** I do not actually own a Frigidaire-brand refrigerator but I'm not writing from home and can't actually recall what brand I own. And I'm in good company this way. Shel Silverstein used the Frigidaire brand in his lustrous poem "There's a Polar Bear in My Frigidaire." Go pick up a copy of "A Light in the Attic" and read it. It might help get your mind off the subject of mammograms.